China’s launch of a second aircraft carrier – its first domestically built – is a major step in its ambition to make the country a “maritime power”, a status the Middle Kingdom last enjoyed just over 120 years ago.

China is now the seventh country with the capability to build its own aircraft carrier, along with the US, Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, after Wednesday’s unveiling of the home-made Shandong. With two aircraft carriers – the Shandong is set to become operational by 2020 – and a few more under construction, China will soon dwarf all its regional rivals – Japan, India and the self-ruled Taiwan – in naval strength.

Only India can potentially rival China in sea power, with one conventional aircraft carrier in operation and two under construction.

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China has quickly ascended from a land-based “green army” to become a regional military presence. Its “blue water” navy can project power far beyond its shores, thanks to double-digit increases in defence spending for most years in the past two decades.

The 50,000-tonne conventional Shandong, built along similar lines but slightly more advanced than China’s first carrier Liaoning (a refitted former Soviet-made conventional carrier commissioned in 2012) can carry 24 J-15 fighters and a dozen helicopters. However, there is still a huge gap between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy and the US navy, which has 10 nuclear-powered, 100,000-tonne Nimitz-class carriers, each capable of carrying about 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

But more telling than numbers is that the US also has more than 75 years of carrier experience, and well-connected global bases for logistical support. China has only one naval base – in Djibouti, Africa.

The Obama administration pledged to shift 60 per cent of American naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 under his “pivot” to Asia plan. US President Donald Trump has vowed to upgrade the US navy’s hardware to build 80 advanced warships to address rising challenges in the region.

China will continue to modernise the PLA navy into an effective fighting force that can safeguard its national interests amid escalating maritime disputes in the region. But military modernisation is not just about hardware – it’s about governance of the armed forces, as the history of the Qing dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet revealed.

At its height in the late 19th century, the Qing navy claimed to have the most powerful fleet in the Far East. Its state-of-the-art Beiyang Fleet had eight of the most advanced German- and British-built cruisers. Yet it was soundly defeated by the Meiji navy during the Sino-Japanese war in January 1895, largely due to rampant corruption. The humiliated defeat resulted in China’s ceding of Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The PLA remains haunted by scandal, the scale of which is unseen in any other major military in the world. Nearly 100 generals including two senior military officials, Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚), both vice-chairmen of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, have been ensnared in a recent crackdown on corruption. Last year, a total of 4,885 PLA officers were disciplined, according to official data.

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One can hardly expect officers and soldiers to keep up morale in a corrupt system where promotions are attained through bribes.

While carrier-building is a huge step towards modernisation, the fate of the Beiyang Fleet is a cautionary tale that illustrates the importance of also promoting self-confidence in the PLA rank and file, if Beijing wants to remake its communist-led army into a true “people’s” force.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s